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O.K. Coral: Outlaw fisher turns reef marshal in Indonesia's Sumbawa

Mongabay - October 31, 2023

Asad Asnawi, West Sumbawa, Indonesia – More than a decade ago, Amiruddin would climb aboard a small fishing boat under the cover of night armed with around 10 bombs.

Amir, as he is commonly known, and his accomplices motored for around half an hour from the western shoreline of Indonesia's Sumbawa Island to waters off the small island of Paserang. Then the men would detonate the explosives over the reef below, Amir told Mongabay Indonesia.

"I have done all the illegal fishing practices," Amir said. "It's because the yield was so great."

Amir, who is in his late 30s, has ventured out to sea ever since he was a child. As a younger man, he would explore the islands off West Sumbawa district with explosives and poison, menacing schools of fish by carpet bombing the reefs where they fed.

Amir would haul vast quantities, often 500-1,000 kilograms (1,100-2,200 pounds) of fish shocked or maimed by the demolition. The explosives gained him a fourfold increase compared with less-destructive fishing practices, he said, but at the expense of around 10 square meters (107 square feet) of coral at a time.

"If you use fish bombs, it's quick," he said.

Amir's luck almost ran out in 2010 when police found him cruising the waters off Gili Balu, an island off Sumbawa, looking for fish schools.

However, Amir was not carrying explosives on that occasion and police later released him from custody.

Amir then moved to the island of Bali, a day's drive and two ferries from Sumbawa, where he saw for the first time communities participating in more vibrant coastal economies.

Every fortnight, Amir would travel back to Sumbawa. He had given up explosives after his arrest but began experimenting with a 100-m (328-ft) hose attached to a compressor, dousing schools of fish with poison.

The extreme approach nearly cost Amir his life when his stomach cramped and he had to be pulled to the surface. "Half my body went numb," he recalled.

Sea change

The brush with the law and a lengthy convalescence from toxic exposure led Amir to abandon his occupation as an illegal fisher. He returned to Bali to study how marine resources were harnessed for tourism. He reflected on his former fishing practices and arrived at a sense of regret.

"Maybe because we were ignorant, we didn't know any better then," he said. "So, yeah, I'm sorry, it's truly regrettable."

After spending five years in Bali, Amir resolved to return to Sumbawa hoping to repair the damage he had done.

The change of heart entailed challenges – many saw Amir as an outlaw. But he persevered and successfully engineered lattices to stimulate coral growth, which he placed around an island he used to fish with explosives.

He gained advanced knowledge from the Coral Reef Rehabilitation and Management Program-Coral Triangle Initiative project, a multilateral rehabilitation project championed by Indonesia's former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in 2009.

"I saw that the growth of coral reefs was only around 1 centimeter [0.4 inches] per year," Amir said. "The thing is, I used to destroy it in a matter of seconds."

Over time, the media Amir installed supported new coral growth and attracted fish, which compounded his dedication to the work.

"To date, there are approximately 20 restoration media using the spider web method that I've planted in the waters off Gili Balu," he said.

Following his early success, Amir sought to persuade other fishers to join him conserving the reefs and protecting the waters from illegal fishing. Some were reluctant at first to spend time on an initiative that would bring them no benefit.

However, many were anxious about dwindling stocks of fish. To date, Amir has persuaded 53 fishers to join Pelita Poto Tano, an organization working to replenish local coral.

"And most of them used to be perpetrators of illegal fishing," Amir said.

Source: https://news.mongabay.com/2023/10/o-k-coral-outlaw-fisher-turns-reef-marshal-in-indonesias-sumbawa